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Why Kingsley Amis?

July 19, 2008

I came to Kingsley Amis by way of his son, Martin.  (That fact would have greatly irritated Kingsley.)  Hipster postmodern Martin, essentially my age, whose novels I have tried to like, er, finish…Jesus, I oughta be able to do that, right?  Being a long time Anglophile, I was just drawn to Martin, his stuff like some great unscaleable peaks that, perhaps, one day, I would climb.  But probably not.  And I really still haven’t.  Maybe one.

But once attracted, I rarely give up on a promising author.  I had picked up Martin’s sort of autobiography Experience, at Heathrow back in 2001 on the way back from, of all things, the Farnborough Air Show.  What the hell was I doing at a big, international air show?  That’s another story, another life.  Anyway, Experience opens with a little excerpt from a Kingsley novel, I Like it Here (’58):

–Dad.

–Yes?  (Martin says–Kingsley would have said ‘….Yeeesss?—with a dip in it, to signal mild but invariable irritation.)

‘How big’s the boat that’s taking us to Portugal?’

‘I don’t know really. Pretty big, I should think.’

‘As big as a killer whale?’

‘What?  Oh yes, easily.’

‘As big as a blue whale?’

‘Yes of course, as big as any kind of whale.’

‘Bigger?’

‘Yes, much bigger.’

‘How much bigger?’

‘Never you mind how much bigger.  Just bigger is all I can tell you.’

There is a break, and the discussion resumes.

…’Dad.’

‘Yes?’

‘If two tigers jumped on a blue whale, could they kill it?

‘Ah, but that couldn’t happen, you see.  If the whale was in the sea the tigers would drown straight away, and if the whale was….’

And so on.  Martin says that this bit was taken nearly verbatim from many conversations he had had with Kingsley in his younger days.  And it is great comedy, skillful dialogue writing.  The quick back and forth, the absence of he-said then he said, demanding that the reader pay attention.  As Robin Behn says—give the reader a task.  What is it about the simple, repeated ‘Dad’?   And I love Martin’s aside that Kingsley would have said ‘yeeessss.’

So, Martin’s book directed my to Kingsley.  Yes, of course, Experience itself is a good book, a fine tale of growing up literate in Swinging London and all that.

Speaking of the early seeds of Lucky Jim, Kingsley wrote of his visit in 1948 to see his good friend Philip Larkin at University College, Leicester:

“I looked around a couple of times and said to myself, ‘Christ, somebody ought to do something with this.’  Not that it was awful—well, only a bit; it was strange and sort of developed, a whole mode of existence no one had got on to from outside.”

Christ, that’s how any of us ought to come up with the first rumblings of a novel.

Lucky Jim—a “seminal campus novel” of the 50s, its success granting Kingsley paid acceptance into the Angry Young Men club of postwar Britain.  But he didn’t really want be join up.  He just wanted to write funny stuff, chase the skirts and drink.  Which brings me to the recent reissue of his goofy alcohol imbibing, how-to books of the 70s; published in the US as Everyday Drinking:

            “This punch is to be drunk immediately on rising, in lieu of eating breakfast.  It is an excellent heartener and sustainer at the outset of a hard day: not only before an air trip or an interview, but when you have in prospect one of those grueling nominal festivities like Christmas morning, the wedding of an old friend of your wife’s or taking the family over to Gran’s for Sunday dinner.”

 

Martin and Kingsley, late ’70s, Martin referring to himself as Osric the Bee Gee.

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From → Lucky Jim

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